Shortly after 9 a.m. Tuesday, a worker at the J. Paul Getty Museum put the finishing touches on the gallery that features “Woman-Ochre.”
He peeled a strip of paper from the wall, revealing a quote from the painting’s Dutch-American artist, Willem de Kooning:
“I don’t paint to earn a living. I live to paint”, he said.
And with that, the now famous stolen and recovered de Kooning painting was back on display after being largely hidden away for the past 37 years.
A guard was never more than a few meters away.
Visitors marched past, museum plans in hand. Some quickly fell by the wayside. Others lingered, pointing to de Kooning’s distinctive brushstrokes and vivid hues of yellow, turquoise and crimson.
Visitors learned about the painting’s daring heist from the University of Arizona Museum of Art in 1985 and its startling recovery three decades later from an antique store in New Mexico. They also got a behind-the-scenes look at how the $100 million painting was repaired so it could be put on display again.
Greg Halamicek drove an hour with his wife, Tina, and son, Patrick, from their home in Lancaster to see “Woman-Ochre.” As their vehicle moved slowly through morning traffic, he said he spoke to his family about the theft and the recovery of the painting.
“The story is fascinating,” he said.
He wonders how many other paintings have disappeared.
For subscribers: The saga of the famous painting stolen from Kooning in Arizona. New details paint the picture of the suspected thieves
Tina Halamicek found “Femme-Ocre” remarkable and beautiful, something she could stare at for hours.
Patrick Halamicek made more practical observations about how the university will protect the painting when “Femmes-Ocre” returns to the art museum this fall.
“I imagine they will increase security,” he said.
Some reactions were more simplistic. A guide led a group past the painting – which depicts a seated nude woman with her mouth twisted into a grimace – and asked visitors: “What is the first thing you see when you look at the painting?”
“I see boobs,” said one woman.
“Woman-Ocher” is part of a series de Kooning painted in the 1950s known as “Women”. They were dramatic, aggressive depictions of women with large mouths, big eyes, and exaggerated breasts.
In the winter of 1954-55, he produced an oil painting of a naked woman, her breasts highlighted in yellow. He added hues of turquoise, green, purple and orange against a neutral background. De Kooning sold the work, titled “Woman-Ochre”, in 1955. Three years later, a Baltimore businessman who enjoyed vacationing in Arizona, Edward Joseph Gallagher Jr., donated the painting at the University Art Museum.
After being stolen, “Woman-Ocher” hung in a dusty gilt frame in the bedroom of Jerry and Rita Alter, a retired couple who lived in small town New Mexico. It wasn’t until after the Quirks died that the art was recognized as stolen by three antique dealers. They immediately called the museum and returned it.
The oil painting on canvas could not be exhibited again because it was badly damaged during the theft.
It took a team of scientists, curators and imagery specialists from the Getty Museum and the Getty Conservation Institute to tackle the complex conservation. The project lasted almost three years.
The thieves used a sharp object, possibly a box cutter, to cut “Woman-Ocher” from its frame. But they were probably unaware that there was a secondary web, attached to the main web by a waxy resin. The blade did not go all the way. So the thieves ripped off the paint, creating horizontal cracks.
“There was a lot of violence in the way the canvas was pulled from the backdrop. The word trauma comes to mind,” said Tom Learner, chief scientist at the Getty Conservation Institute.
The thieves further damaged the painting by rolling it up – face on – and hiding it under a winter coat so it could be smuggled out.
“It was one of the most damaged paintings I’ve ever seen. Definitely the most damaged painting I’ve ever worked on,” said Laura Rivers, associate conservator of paintings at the J. Paul Getty Museum.
It’s a bit like reconstructive surgery. Overdo it and the paint looks over restored. The lens is just enough to let the paint do the talking.
Rivers had to reattach the lifted and peeling paint using custom tools and a microscope. She found fragments of paint strewn across the surface, creating “visual noise” that disrupted the image. These had to be removed.
Work was slow. She could only cover an inch a day. The COVID-19 pandemic has further slowed progress; at one time, Rivers was limited to working in the conservation lab just one day a week.
“Woman-Ocher” had two coats of varnish that gave the painting a grayish or yellowish tint. One was applied in the 1970s when the university loaned the painting to the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The other varnish was added after the painting was stolen.
Rivers used mixtures of solvents to remove varnishes. One of the varnishes was almost tacky at room temperature.
“So he had picked up almost every bit of dust that had floated around in Arizona or New Mexico,” she said.
She described the cleaning procedure as “an extraordinary privilege”.
For subscribers: $100 million from Kooning recovered in 2017. New details paint picture of suspected thieves
The paint was also missing in places. Ulrich Birkmaier, chief curator of paintings at the Getty Museum, filled in the gaps with pigments. He used a small brush that barely touched the surface. Pigments were only applied where paint was missing, never painted over de Kooning’s work.
“If you compare it to a puzzle, you’re just filling in the missing pieces,” Birkmaier said, in an interview with The Arizona Republic in May.
The flight is still fresh in people’s minds. But in 50 or 100 years, theft might not be the first thing people think of when they watch “Femme-Ocher,” he said.
“I hope there is only a painting with slight scars (which) for the casual viewer will not really be visible,” he said.
How to see ‘Woman-Ochre’
What: “Woman-Ochre” by Willem de Kooning is an oil painting he produced during the winter of 1954-55. The work is part of his famous Women series where the Dutch-American artist explored the female figure. Paintings of women shocked the art world due to their aggressive nature where the female form is characterized by large eyes, large mouths and exaggerated breasts.
The history of painting: “Woman-Ocher” was exhibited at the Martha Jackson Gallery in New York in 1955 before being purchased by Baltimore businessman Edward Joseph Gallagher Jr. in 1957. The following year Gallagher donated of “Woman-Ocher” and other works at the University of Arizona Museum of Art. The painting was valued at $6,000 at the time.
Estimated value: The university no longer assigns a value to the painting, but in 2015 the estimated value reached $160 million.
In Los Angeles: “Conserving de Kooning: Theft and Recovery” is at the Getty Center from June 7 to August 28. See the Getty website for more information.
In Tucson: On display at the University of Arizona Museum of Art, from October 8. Check the museum’s website for more information.
Republic reporter Anne Ryman was the first reporter to tell the story that “Woman-Ocher” had been salvaged, and wrote extensively about the board. A question about painting? You can reach her at [email protected] or 602-444-8072. Follow her on Twitter @anneryman.
Contact the reporter at [email protected] or 602-444-8072. Follow her on Twitter @anneryman. Support local journalism. Subscribe to azcentral.com today.